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June 2012
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Many voices in debate on capital punishment

BY LAUREN P. DUNCAN lduncan@paducahsun.com

Carrying out the death penalty is what former prison warden Dr. Allen Ault calls serial killing.

"I asked for the last words, I stood behind, at that time, the electric chair ... I told the electrician, 'Throw the switch.' I watched the jolt go through the human body, and I realized I had just killed a fellow human being," said Ault, who has executed five people.

Ault, now dean of criminal justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University, was one of 13 people who presented testimony Friday  to Kentucky's Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary. It held a three-hour hearing on the death penalty at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah.

The individuals presented their different perspectives over the nearly three-hour-long meeting.

There were more speakers opposed to the penalty than supporters. Committee co-chair Rep. John Tilley said several people in support of the penalty who were invited to testify had declined.

Dr. Mark Coppenger of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a proponent of the death penalty, cited several Biblical passages as to why it should be retained.

"It's not good to read about a botched lethal injection that takes longer than they expected, and I trust people to get that right, but to compare that to the suffering of those who were murdered, it seems to me a little overwrought," he said.

Two faith-based opponents to the death penalty are the Rev. Dr. Marian Taylor of the Kentucky Council of Churches and Jason Hall, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. Together, they represent about 800,000 Kentuckians in their member churches. Both cited theological reasons in making their case for the penalty to be abolished.

One judiciary committee member asked if the faith-based opponents think a terrorist should not be sentenced to death.

"It's not so much a question to me as who deserves capital punishment as it is the question can we maintain a system of capital punishment only where we are certain Nuremberg level or 9/11 level cases result in the death penalty, and the truth is ... we are unable to maintain that type of system," Hall said.

G.L. Ovey, the commonwealth's attorney with the 56th Judicial Circuit in western Kentucky, shared the story of a gruesome murder to explain why he supports the death penalty. Kevin Dunlap raped and restrained Kristy Frensley, then stabbed two of her children, ages five and 14, and slit the throat of her 17-year-old daughter.

He then lit the house on fire.

"I maintain that in certain particular cases with certain particular defendants, the only just and proper sentence is the death penalty," he said.

Ed Monahan, Kentucky public advocate, and Ernie Lewis of the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, shared perspectives on why they think the death penalty is unjust in relation to the criminal justice system.

Lewis cited a change in the American Law Institute's (ALI) take on the death penalty. The ALI produced the model penal code for states, which included a section on the death penalty.

In 2009, it withdrew the section on the grounds that the death penalty is too complicated to develop a model code of law for the punishment.

Monahan said the capital punishment system needs to either be fixed of eliminated.

"There is enormous error, waste and abuse in the system today," he said.

Several legislators spoke up on both sides of the issue, including Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, and Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, who oppose the death penalty. Speaking in support of it were Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-Paducah, and Thomas Kerr, R-Taylor Mill. 

Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown testified but took no stance on the penalty.

Kentucky has been under a court-ordered stay since 2010, which means executions cannot be performed. In 1998, the state introduced the lethal injection process of execution. Of the 33 inmates currently on death row, Brown said, the 22 who were convicted before 1998 would be able to select between lethal injection or electrocution.

If the stay is lifted, four of the inmates would be eligible for execution immediately.

Brown said it costs about $140,000 a year more to house all of the 32 male death row inmates at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville than it does to house "similar highly classified inmates," because security measures at the death row facility carry higher costs.

Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.

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